The abundance of colors surrounding the gallery in Robert Swain’s latest exhibit, “The Form of Color,” is a little overwhelming. Only after walking around the gallery for a few minutes – with eyes searching the walls of mingling colors – will viewers find color collisions that appeal to them.
And then it all makes sense. Lines begin to fade away until only meshing shades of color dance across the gallery. Individual squares of one solid color even appear to have their own changing color gradient within them. There are no objects or subject to focus on like in an average painting, just color.
Yes, Swain’s work is far from average. Lining the walls of the main gallery of the Santa Monica Museum of Art are five paintings — the smallest two being nine-by-nine foot squares, and the largest a rectangle sizing up to ten feet tall and 70 feet long. Each of these giant panels is divvied into a grid pattern consisting of twelve inch by twelve inch squares — each assigned a single hue different than the rest. With this network, Swain blends colors across the gallery, demanding viewers to come face to face with various color hues, saturations and combinations they have never experienced before.
Since 1970, Robert Swain has been developing his own “language” of color – hand mixing paints to create a system that now consists of nearly 4,900 different shades. He uses this vast color network to create visceral responses within viewers. For example, if red triggers anger, and green initiates relaxation, how do people feel when they see each of the different shades between the two? Swain hopes that seeing these unfamiliar color combinations will elicit new emotional responses.
“Color is about sensation," explains Swain. "[It's] a very fleeting kind of perception.”
Swain is able to create dissonance between colors. In the center of the piece below, Swain meshes colored stripes — from blue, through the spectrum until red. Across this wave of colors, a dark murky brown stripe crosses diagonally. As your eye extends out from the center, these colored stripes fade into bright, diagonal white lines that run parallel with the dark streak across the center, before saturating back into shades of green and red on either end.
As a bonus, the white streaks seen in some of his pieces follow the direction of natural lighting that pours in from the ceiling.
“The light quality was absolutely perfect,” says Swain of the gallery. It helped him to create his pieces specifically for the site.
Back in the 1960s, before devoting his art to the exploration of color, Swain was strongly influenced by the chromatic and compositional strategies from French post-impressionist painters Pierre Bonnard and Georges Seurat. The latter devised the painting technique known as divisionism, where colors are arranged in dots or patches so viewers’ eyes create the color in between — like how we see the color blue-green in between blue and green dabs of paint. This style of painting is a prominent feature of Swain’s work.
Later, he learned about the Ostwald and Munsell color systems — two systems that break down colors into three categories: hue (the distinguishable quality between colors), saturation (the amount of white in a color) and value (the relative lightness or darkness of a color). That's when he realized where his passion lay. If he created his own color system, he could analyze color firsthand — and learn more about how color affects people.
“The thing I try to emphasize is [that] color originates with electro-magnetic energy,” he explains. “When light enters your eye, it’s changed into a chemical. It changes your whole physiology.”
Profoundly stricken by this concept, Swain began working on what would become a life-long undertaking.
At one point during this time, “I went through about two years of craziness,” says Swain. Every day during these two years, Swain obsessed over color, spending day after day hand-mixing and cataloging new colors for his spectrum. It was the beginning of the practice that led him to create to the 4,896 color-tiles he has today.
“It’s kind of like scales of music, you assimilate it day after day,” he says.
The back of the exhibit features six color charts that Swain made during 1979. Each chart features the various shades and saturations of one color: yellow, red, purple, dark blue, light blue and green, or, as he’s titled them, Color Chart Hues 1, 6, 11, 16, 27, 21. Above, we see what color Swain means by "hue 11,” a.k.a. purple.
“My color system is based on numerical identification,” says Swain. “There were too many to be done by name.”
Swain is also fascinated by the correlation between color and music, an idea that stems from Isaac Newtown’s concept that the color wheel likens to musical notes.
In the gallery, classical and opera music plays, giving the exhibit an extra sense of emotional depth.
“With Santa Monica [Museum of Art]’s 75-foot wall, I could orchestrate Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but instead it would be Bob Swain’s arrangement of color,” Swain jokes.
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“The Form of Color,” on display until August 23, isn’t the end-all exhibit of Swain’s work. As he puts it, “I’m here today doing the same thing I was doing 50 years ago."
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